Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

I have always had a certain fondness for Thanksgiving. I was born on Thanksgiving. So, I always tell my kids that the whole nation is gathering to give thanks for me. My kids seem to think this is a bit egocentric.

For what am I thankful? That question is hard to answer--does one list the things for which one is truly thankful, but which don't change from year to year, or does one give the list of things for which one is thankful only in this particular year? Those are quite different lists, with the former being the more important and the latter being the more idiosyncratic.

The things for which I am really thankful:

1. Jesus Christ. Once one realizes that debt, it is hard to list anything else as second because the gap between 1 and 2 is necessarily immense.

2. Janet. I honestly don't think I would be a functioning member of society without her. She has been my best friend for over a quarter century now--in fact, she has been such a friend to me that I have never really felt any strong need for other friendships. She is an amazing wife and mother, truly the most wonderful person I have ever known.

3. Emma, Lily and Clara. All three of them make me smile. Yeah, they test my patience at times, but that is what kids are supposed to do, after all. I really hope they know deep down inside that I love them an immense amount and I only want what is best for them.

4. The United States of America. The greatest country on Earth. Period.

5. Stony Brook Community Church. The best extended family one can imagine.

6. Mount Holyoke College. Not only did Mount Holyoke hire me, thereby providing an income (which is something naturally thank-inducing), but I have met so many fascinating students there. All those conversations in my office and over lunch and on Skinner Green and in classrooms and lounges around campus have never ceased to teach me and amuse me. I don't think many of my students have ever known how much I appreciate the fact that they talk to me about the most interesting and random things imaginable.

That list never changes.

I meant to move to the list of things I am grateful for this year, but they all seem so trivial compared to the list above.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Life is too short to drink bad coffee

At long last, my life has now adapted to my motto in the title of this post. The Economics department has rather bad coffee--not instant coffee bad, but still it isn't good at all. For 16 years, I have been drinking it because it is there and bad coffee is better than no coffee and having a coffee pot of my own in my office is messy and a hassle. But, today, my wonderful family gave me one of the Keurig single serve coffee makers as a birthday gift. (Yes, as the Reader has cleverly deduced, today is my birthday (and, yes, as the Reader has also deduced, I am old, but I was old yesterday too, so that fact hasn't really actually changed all that much (yes, for the pedantically inclined, it has changed by exactly a day, which in some cases is a non-negligible unit of time, but in the present case, we may take it as approximating zero)).) So, tomorrow, my work habitat will have good coffee. Life is good.

And, yes, I did get my annual new shirt from my mother and father in law--if they didn't give me a new shirt every year, I would be living my Thoreauvian ideal of having just one shirt which I would wear every day. Those of you who are glad that I own more than one long-sleeved collared shirt may thank my in-laws.

My mother sent me a new Raiders T-shirt and Raiders Calendar. My mother is well acquainted with my love, deep, deep love, for the Raiders.

Janet made Indian food for dinner. Emma and I watched another episode of Twin Peaks--we are getting near the end, but I am not sure if she knows the show ends with Season 2--and I suspect she isn't going to be very happy with the way the show ends--but, I will be amused at her reaction.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The State of First Things December 2009

Next in a continuing series documenting the state of First Things

1. Well worth Reading

1. Mary Eberstadt, How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool
Pedophilia had begun to gain some respect on the Left a few years back (Eberstadt gives the examples of New Republic, Vanity Fair, Nation (of course), and the American Psychological Association's, Psychological Bulletin). Suddenly, however, the Left has stopped defending pedophiles. The cause of the change? The Catholic Church Scandal. Faced with a chance to bash the Catholic Church, the Left discovered that pedophilia is bad, really bad. Welcome to the rediscovery of morality on the Left.

2. Wesley Smith, Pulling the Plug on the Conscience Clause
A very nice account of the continuing advance of the Culture of Death. Can a doctor refuse to perform an abortion? Can a pharmacist refuse to provide drugs designed to cause an abortion? Can a doctor refuse to euthanize a patient who requests it? Depressingly, many say no.

3. John Sutherland's review of Nabokov's The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun)
The Nabokov book isn't really a novel; it is a set of notecards which were the start of a novel. The notecards have now been published and there is enough of them to figure out the rough storyline. In other words, the book sounds like a mess. Sutherland's review did nothing to convince me to want to look at the book, but it did convince me that there is a good reason for the book to exist. It also has some nice reflections on the idea of publishing a manuscript against the will of the author (Nabokov wanted the thing destroyed when he died) and the way Nabokov worked in thinking about crafting a novel.

2. Flawed, but worth the time

1. Thomas Berg's review of Gilbert Meilander's Neither Best nor God
The review wasn't that interesting, but it started with an interesting question that Berg has posed to the other members of the Empire State Stem Cell Board. Is there anything that you would say should never be allowed to be done with a human embryo? "One colleague conceded he would not want them served in an upscale restaurant as a kind of caviar; another, that she would not want them used for cleaning floors or for powering cars." The interesting question, which Berg does not discuss (he is reviewing a book after all) is what is really wrong with those sorts of uses for a human embryo? If a human embryo is a human, then I get it, but then of course killing them is wrong for any reason. But if the human embryo isn't human, what is wrong with eating them or using them in a cleaning fluid?

2. Julie Stoner's poem "Advent Carol" is clever and funny and decent poetry.

3. Jody Bottom's end of magazine column was also good.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

New QB, New Result

Raiders 20 Bengals 17! The Raiders bench Russell, start Gradkowski--yeah, that Gradkowski--and what do you know, the Raiders win. Life is good, very good.

The Raiders next play on Thanksgiving. It is times like this that it is not very fun being the only football fan in the extended family. Janet offered to rearrange Thanksgiving Day so I could watch the game, but I felt too guilty to take her up on the offer. So, I'll record it and watch it after everyone has gone to bed. Hopefully, my joy-filled screaming at the Raiders new-found winning ways will be so loud that everyone wakes up from their slumber.

I am ridiculously optimistic about the game this Thursday against Dallas. I think this is called Irrational Exuberance.

In other football news, the Sunday night game between Philly and Chicago is painful--the Raiders could beat either one of these teams--come to think of it, they already beat one of them.

At least I wrote two midterm exams during football games today. Tomorrow, I have to give both exams--it makes for an odd day--two classes, no lectures. And, since it is Thanksgiving week, that means I have no lectures all week. But, I do have a lot of grading to do on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Speaking of Sunday Night football, Chris Collinsworth is really, really good. I never would have imagined that Madden would be so ably replaced. The MNF crew this year is finally good again--getting rid of the resident joker and replacing him with Gruden was a great move--finally ESPN/ABC realized that people who watch MNF want to watch football.

I love football--why doesn't anyone else in my family love football? Seriously. I have three kids--why couldn't I get any of them addicted to watching football with me? Janet used to watch football with me every Sunday before we were married. I think there is an explanation of such phenomena in the literature on dating.

But, the Raiders won, so right now, everything is good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No Plot, No Character, No Problem

I recently finished 'Noh' or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound. It is, as the title suggests, a treatise on the Noh Plays, complete with numerous scripts for such plays.

I knew quite little about Noh plays before reading this book. "Quite Little" means: I had heard the word "Noh" before and I knew Noh plays were Japanese.

The conclusion after reading a book about Noh plays: to put it mildly, Noh plays are horrible. Even the best of them are barely worth reading.

But, the Noh play is supposed to be more than just a written play--it is a combination of play and music and dance--and of those the dance is far an away the most important. In other words, what I am reading is a book about a form of dance but the bulk of the book is not about the dance at all, but rather some "plots" of a dance in which the words are in translation, and so the music and visual aspects of the whole Noh experience is completely absent. Is it any wonder the scripts are terrible?

Two interesting notes from the book.

1. "But in Noh everything comes down by tradition from early Tokugawa days and cannot be judged by any living man, but can only be followed faithfully." That is a genuinely interesting idea--what if there was an art form that literally nobody on earth found meritorious--is it sill art simply because someone in the past thought it was Art? Is it worth watching today?

2. "Our own art is so much an act of emphasis, and even of over-emphasis, that it is difficult to consider the possibilities of an absolutely unemphasized art, an art where the author trusts so implicitly that his audience will know what things are profound and important." I suppose if that is true, it is no wonder that I have a hard time appreciating the Noh play.

I did YouTube "Noh" and saw some clips which I can only hope were horrible amateur imitations of a genuine art form.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Welcome to Gopher Prairie

The report on the next installment of my tutorial's tour of the Gilded Age: Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Before now, I had only read one of Lewis' books; Babbitt is an interesting portrayal of a type of middle manager from the early 20th century. Mencken uses the term Babbitt to refer to that entire class of people frequently in his writings, so I read the novel back when I discovered Mencken.

Main Street came right before Babbitt; same general idea, different class of people. This novel mocks either 1) small town America or 2) those who want to reform Small Town America to make it more sophisticated. Or maybe it is mocking both. It is hard to tell.

It's an odd book; I would have said that it was terribly tedious--nearly 500 pages of Carol, our protagonist, alternating between whining about how small-minded the citizens of Gopher Prairie are and deciding to enjoy life in the town--but interestingly, Main Street was a best-seller in its day. So, obviously, at the time people thought it was great reading. Why? I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it appealed to the Eastern Elite of the day as a vehicle for confirming their prejudices about how terrible life was in Middle America. Read that way, it is a mocking satire on small-town life. On the other hand, Carol was a horrible bore; perhaps I have too much sympathy for the fine citizens of Gopher Prairie--despite the fact that I have a hard time imagining being friends with anyone who lives in the town.

The most fascinating thing from the tutorial discussion was that nobody in the room had much patience for Gopher Prairie; everyone seemed to think the people in the town were rather small-minded and dull. But, the last book we read was The Age of Innocence, and nobody thought the members of the New York Aristocracy about whom that book revolved were small minded or dull. Yet, it is very hard to figure out any difference between the New York Aristocracy and the Gopher Prairie yokels except that former are richer and dress in more glamorous clothing. Elitism runs deep.

On the whole, I think Babbitt is the better book.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Economics in the Morning

I gave a talk at the South Hadley Chamber of Commerce's annual economic forum this morning. It was a breakfast meeting in which they asked a financial planner and me to talk for 15 minutes or so and then we took questions. The topic was the State of the Economy. Here is my take:

We are recovering from a textbook recession. Despite all the fear and angst a year ago, this is not the Great Depression and the world did not end. GDP fell, and now it is rising. The people who are doubting that the recession is over note that things are still bad; but that is the point--the recession ends and growth starts by definition at the lowest point. The recovery will take some time--nobody is sure how long.

There are many things going on that are interesting, but there are two which particularly intrigue me. First, the lack of a financial regulation bill. When I spoke at this event last year, I noted that we could be certain that there would be a new set of financial regulations in 2009. I was wrong. Washington has been obsessed first with the Stimulus Bill and then with the health care bill, so this rather important bit of legislation has not been discussed at all. The lack of action on a new regulatory bill is certainly slowing down the recovery of the financial markets--financial firms have no way of knowing what sort of activities will be prohibited or encouraged in future regulation.

The second intriguing thing is the possible inflation in the future. The Fed has increased the monetary base (essentially bank reserves) by a substantial amount. In normal times this would lead to a very rapid increase the money supply and thus a high inflation rate. At present banks are hoarding reserves, largely because they are still nervous about the financial and regulatory climate. The Fed is promising to act before the money supply has a chance to go up. This sounds nice--and this is certainly possible to do on a chalkboard. But, no country in the history of the world has ever done what the Fed is pledging to do. So, either they will pull off the greatest act of monetary management we have ever seen or we are going to see double digit inflation at some point in the next few years.

The questions ranged all over; the comment I made that seemed to arouse the most opposition is that there is nothing in this recession that is fundamentally different than what we have seen before. I have seen this before--many people really want to believe that this recession or the reaction to it are completely without precedent. I have no idea why people want to believe in the novelty of the economic events of the last two years.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Update Again

While straight cut and paste still isn't working, a web search indicates this may just be an intermittent problem with blogger--so maybe, just maybe, Windows 7 is off the hook on this one. In any event, I can cut and paste into the hyperlink box on blogger and thus, you can now directly go to the aforementioned (please refer to the aforementioned explanation of the use of this word in blog postings) video clip.

This leaves only the printer problem, which past experience suggests may not be the sort of problem best tackled at 12:30 AM, and the antivirus problem which fairness compels me to acknowledge is due in part to Windows 7, in part to Dell, and in part to my own failure to anticipate that this could be a problem. On the other hand, the antivirus problem is probably fixable with 4 hours of my time or certainly fixable by spending $40.

Pity the poor Mac users who don't get the thrill of fixing all these problems.


The aforementioned (which given the ordering of the posts on a blog, the aforementioned actually follows this, thus the "afore" is temporal, not spatial) problem of Word not working in Windows 7 has been remedied with the help of the handy Microsoft Office Diagnostics tool, buried in the list of programs I did not know I owned.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Winders VII

I do believe Mr Squeers designed the new Windows 7.

I installed it today. The upside--it does seem faster and simpler than Vista. That's good. The bad side? In order to install it, I had to uninstall the virus protection program, so now I have to buy a new one of those. And, I just noticed that Microsoft Word isn't working--that would be a Microsoft program showing incompatibility problems with Windows. Go figure. The printer is also not working, but I probably just have to reinstall the printer drivers. Cutting and pasting into this blog entry also doesn't seem to work. New computers are such marvelous fun, no?

Cue the Mac Vs PC ad, Broken Promises: I'd link to it, but, well, I can't cut and paste the link.

Of course I still think Macs are for wimpy people who can't handle problems...

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Wired World

Last year I received a free subscription to Wired magazine after buying something on Amazon (I forget what). I knew little about Wired, other than that it had technology articles; I'd never even seen a copy of it, but there is little reason to refuse a free subscription. I got my first issue earlier in the year, and after reading it a) I enjoyed it and b) I had no idea what connected all the articles--a seemingly rather bizarre set of topics--some of the articles were about new technology, but most of them were not. The next month I again read straight through the issue--same seemingly random set of articles. The weird thing was I enjoyed reading almost everything in the magazine--and it was not immediately obvious why I would enjoy a randomly selected set of articles. It took me a few issues to figure out the theme: Wired is a magazine for Geeks.

My free subscription is expiring. It costs $8 to renew for another year. I didn't hesitate to renew. I really like Wired.

So, if you are looking for a great Christmas gift for a Geek in your life: $8. Done.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fascist Poetry

Of late, I have been reading Ezra Pound's poetry. The Library of America has done its usual masterful job in putting together a collection which allows one to read widely in a particular poet. I have never been able to figure out if I like Pound or not. On the one hand, his volume of translations of Chinese poems, Cathay, is one of the best books of poetry ever. On the other hand, the Cantos are a mess. The rest of his poetry lies all along that spectrum. In the last week, I have been perusing a couple of his books.

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a long poem (or maybe two) in parts. Its a very mixed bag. It starts off marvelously well--from "II":

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

But, the poems soon descend into Canto-like obscure references--popular with the crossword puzzle crowd, no doubt.

More intriguing is Alfred Venison's Poems, a series by Pound pretending to be an uneducated everyman. An example:

The pomps of butchery, financial power,
Told 'em to die in war, and then to save,
Then cut their saving to the half or lower;
When will this system lie down in its grave?

The pomps of Fleet St., festering year on year,
Hid truth and lied, and lied and hid the facts.
The pimps of Whitehall ever more in fear,
Hid health statistics, dodged the Labour Acts.

All drew their pay, and as the pay grew less,
The money rotten and more rotten yet,
Hid more statistics, more feared to confess
C.3, C.4, 'twere better to forget.

How many weak of mind, how much tuberculosis
Filled the back alleys and the back to back houses.
"The medical report this week discloses..."
"Time for that question!" Front Bench interposes.

Time for that question? and the time is NOW.
Who ate the profits, and who locked 'em in
The unsafe safe, wherein all rots, and no man can say how
What was the nation's, now by Norman's kin
Is one day blown up large, the next, sucked in?

That poem, and the rest in this volume are clever; many of the poems in the volume are redone classics (Half a loaf, half a loaf,/Half a loaf? Um-hum?" begins "The Charge of the Bread Brigade.") But, here is the thing that really intrigues me: if I were to hand these poems to the average Socialist/Communist/Marxist of my acquaintance, they would find nothing in the content to which they would object--the poem's content is all much like that above. But, then ask that same person if they like Fascist Poetry, and they would vehemently assert they are not a fascist. Now, Pound was, if nothing else, a Fascist--and a rather nasty Fascist at that. (He worked for the Italians in broadcasting anti-American propaganda in WWII--he may or may not have been insane when he did that.)

So, what does one do when faced with a poem of solid literary merit and obnoxious political ideals? Is Fascist Poetry (or Marxist Poetry, which is, of course, roughly the same thing), inherently bad? Can one separate literary merit and political intention so easily? Could there be a great poem praising the Holocaust? Then why can there be a great poem praising the underlying ideas which led to the Holocaust? I am not entirely sure how to answer that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gilded Tedium

For last week's tutorial, we read Edith Wharton's, The Age of Innocence. I have now spent close to a week trying to figure out how to review it. It's funny--not in a Wodehousian way, but in a sly, sardonic way. The three main characters all have some depth and are interesting--May, in particular, is fascinating (how naive is she?). But, and here is the thing that leaves me unable to decisively evaluate the book, the novel is another example of that huge genre: The American Gilded Age Novel. And the problem with those novels is the old "Read one, read 'em all" characteristic. Sure, The Age of Innocence has a different plot than Sister Carrie or McTeague or anything by Henry James, but nonetheless, the whole time in reading Wharton, I felt more like I was rereading the book than reading it for the first time. Now, I have never read Wharton before, and I liked her enough that I will certainly read more in the future, but nonetheless, Wharton read like James or Dreiser with a sense of humor--and come to think of it, it's the sense of humor that makes Wharton appealing--while Henry James bores me to tears with his earnest prose and plots, at least Wharton has the good sense to laugh at herself.

The interesting matter to ponder in The Age of Innocence is deciding how much we should feel bound by social conventions. The characters in the novel are all trapped by late 19th century New York Aristocratic rules. They all feel bound by them, two of them may want to break clear, but they don't and one suspects they don't because deep down, they know the importance of maintaining the social conventions. May, the third character, rather than trying to break away, uses the conventions to her advantage in rather clever fashion. Are we more or less free when we are bound by societal norms? Would we really be free if there was no society to constrain our impulses? (Cue Isaiah Berlin and the Apostle Paul.) The tutorial was mixed; one the one hand, everyone wants to be free, on the other hand, there seems to be something instinctively horrible about the idea of breaking social norms. Would you be willing to do something playful and fun (e.g., throw a sandwich across a dorm dining hall) even if there was no consequence to doing so other than social opprobrium? Why not? Would you be willing to divorce your spouse to run off with someone better if the society would frown on doing so? Is a social convention forbidding divorce a good thing? Does the pain of the spouse being left matter? Why?

Next up for the tutorial: Henry James visits the frontier.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nessun Dorma

I saw the Met's production of Puccini's Turandot yesterday; the Met has been broadcasting their Saturday productions live in HD to movie theaters around the country. I wasn't sure how it would work--is watching an opera at the Hampshire Mall movie theater really any good? Would the sound be good? The picture? The experience? The answer: it was fantastic.

I'd never seen a Met stage set before--it was about three times bigger and more lavish than I would have guessed. (An interesting aside--why have I never seen a picture of a Met production? ) The camera work was great--rather than making it seem like you are watching a movie, they make it seem like a live performance. The music was the usual Met level of amazing--I have listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, but seeing it in the movie theater was vastly superior--perhaps the movie theater has a better sound system than my car.

Turandot itself is a pretty good opera. The high point is Nessun Dorma, which is incredible. (You can hear Pavarotti sing it here and here and here.) The opera as a whole has a good emotional range--Liu is genuinely tragic and Ping, Pang and Pong are amusing. Turandot herself is a tough role--she starts out as a sadistic homicidal terror and ends up as a lovesick puppy--this is just a part of the general weakness of the plot, but then, of course, operas don't really exist for their plots.

I took my tutorial to see this on the Mount Holyoke tab. But, now, I think I am addicted. I am definitely buying tickets to see Carmen in January--I hope I can talk one of my family members into going with me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Blog, Therefore I Am

On the one month anniversary of this blog, here is the explanation for its existence.

I started it a month ago. I have not mentioned it to anyone. I did reference it on my Facebook home page, replacing the "Book Recommendation of the Day." I don't actually use Facebook; I have a page, and I accept friend requests, but that is about it. There is no reason to assume that anyone would ever look at my Facebook page. I thought about simply starting the blog and not linking it to anything, but the I figured it might be interesting to see if anyone would find it through Facebook. Some people have found it; I have been averaging about 10 visits a day (with a low of 1 and a high of 49). I have no idea if that is one person visiting 10 times a day or ten people visiting every day or lots of people who have visited only once.

The spread of blogging has interested me. It is an oddly egocentric act to blog--not only is one posting one's thoughts in a public forum, but there is the implied assumption that somebody would actually want to read those thoughts. Why does anyone assume that others want to read their thoughts? Now obviously people do read blogs, so the egocentrism of blogging is not necessarily delusional. But, what prompts a person to decide that his thoughts are worth posting for the world to read? I don't think anyone has ever said to me, "You should really start a blog because I want to read what you think."

In some ways a blog is simply an online diary. I have never kept a diary. In some ways a blog is a forum to talk to others. My whole job involves talking to others, so I hardly need a new forum to do that. Some blogs are forums to post behind-the-scenes information. I have no such information. Some blogs are devoted to gathering interesting tidbits from the world at large. I don't spend enough time browsing the web to have blog like that--in fact, my principal source of news is the Wall Street Journal from the day before (I get in in the mail and read it with breakfast the following morning--as a result, if something happens on a Tuesday, I learn about it on Thursday morning).

So, why did I start this blog? Honestly, I am not sure; I was mostly just curious what the experience would be like. When I was last in India, our family kept a blog so that people back home would know that we were still alive and all, but that blog ended as soon as we returned to the US. This time it seems very different.

So far, I have enjoyed it. I can grouse about life and write about the books I have read. The blog, in other words, is terribly self-indulgent. Then again, I didn't really expect anyone to read the thing. When I started it, I figured I would try it for a month and decide whether it was worth the bother. I think it is.

I do hope that if I ever mention the blog to anyone, I'll have enough shame to end the whole experiment. I don't mind talking to anyone who has stumbled upon this blog about it or the content therein, but I shudder at the idea of telling anyone about it who was blessed by not knowing about it. I really do hate the idea of anyone feeling some compulsion to actually read it--as long as it is the Reader's own fault for reading this blog, I don't feel terribly guilty for the lack of anything of universal interest in the content of these musings.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Real Health Crisis

With all the discussion of a) the health crisis and b) the problems of poverty and lack of development and c) the need for giant international cooperation to solve the pressing problems of the day, why is so little attention paid to a huge public health disaster in the world today? The problem: malaria. It is deadly, widespread and could be prevented, and yet nobody seems to want to do anything about it. The invaluable Bjorn Lomborg has yet another column about it in The Wall Street Journal. As he notes, right now there are people arguing that to curtail the effects of global worming, we should make changes which will cost $40 trillion per year. (To get some perspective on that number, US GDP in 2008 was $14.5 trillion. (As an aside, this perhaps explains why some people aren't too keen on the whole End Global Warming campaign.) To stop the spread of malaria would cost, not $40 trillion per year, but $3 billion per year. (To get some perspective on that number, $3 billion is what the US federal government just spent on Cash-for-Clunkers.) The malaria problem is devastating sub-Saharan Africa, and yet it is almost impossible to find anyone who realizes malaria is a serious problem. HIV-infection rates are also a serious problem in sub-Saharan Africa, and people talk about that all the time. We don't have an easy remedy for HIV infection. We do have easy remedies to stop the spread of malaria. Why isn't that the Cause of the Day?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Japanese Sandman

I just finished The Dream Hunters, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. In it Gaiman takes an old Japanese tale and retells it replacing the King of All Night's Dreaming with the Sandman from his earlier series. (The Sandman is amazing--yes, it is a comic book, but it is as good as most of the best literature being written these days.) This story was very good and the illustrations are a fantastic addition. I have read many books with illustrations, but rarely do the illustrations help tell the story in such an effective manner. The illustrations are all watercolors, and many of them are brilliant. Gaiman's prose is as good as ever.

What I don't know, and have no real way of discovering, is whether the book would be as interesting to someone who had not read through the Sandman series. In other words, how much of the reason I enjoyed this book is because it was immediately lumped in with a series I thought was amazing? In this respect, the story here felt much like the issue of Sandman entitled "Ramadan." One note in favor of the independent quality of this book is that Gaiman also wrote a couple of other books tied into the Sandman world in which Death was the star--and those two books were terrible.

Anyway, if you liked The Sandman or if you like the idea of reading an illustrated Japanese fable, I'd recommend it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Brush with Fame

Lynn Pasquerella was just hired as the next President of MHC.

I met Lynn at the Phi Beta Kappa national meetings I attended a month ago. I talked to her for a bit after I heard she was a Mount Holyoke grad--I liked her--she seemed interesting, smart and no nonsense. Here is the funny thing--at that time she knew she was being interviewed for the job here, but I had no idea. If only I had known--I could have asked her an interesting question or two and had some inside knowledge of what she will do, but as it is, I have no more idea than anyone else who heard her speech today.

Her acceptance speech today was rather good--articulate and intellectually substantive. The emphasis on the liberal arts gives me some hope that the college will rediscover its reason for existence.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mr. Toad's Wild Ride

Alan Jacobs recently wrote a review of a couple of new annotated editions of The Wind in the Willows which prompted me to reread the book. I followed Jacobs' method--only one chapter per night. The book was, as Jacobs noted, utterly charming. If you haven't read it for some time, I'd highly recommend it. I'd also highly recommend the one-chapter-at-a-time rule. It is not a book to be rushed.

I must admit, though, pace Jacobs, that Toad is the best character; the model of charming conceit is terribly appealing. Perhaps this is simply a Rorschach test, but how can anyone resist:

"He got so puffed up with conceit that he made up a song as he walked in praise of himself, and sang it at the top of his voice, though there was no one to hear it but him. It was perhaps the most conceited song that any animal ever composed.

'The world has held great Heroes,
As history books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

'The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half
As much as intelligent Mr. Toad!'


There was a great deal more of the same sort, but too dreadfully conceited to be written down. These are some of the milder verses"

I talked Clara into reading it too--she really enjoyed it at first, but gave up around chapter 10 (out of 12)--then again, I didn't encourage her to read it at a slow pace.

The ride at Disneyland has been one of my favorite rides since I was very young.